11 Best Sugar Substitutes (the Healthiest Natural Sweeteners)
An alarming fact: The average American is consuming 19.5 teaspoons of sugar every day and around 66 pounds of added sugar each year! (1) And while the consumption of refined sugar is on the rise, so are artificial sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, ACE K and saccharin have been debated for years in regard to their damaging side effects. While all of these sweeteners are technically “safe,” according to the FDA, they are coming under increased scrutiny because of their side effects. Side effects from artificial sweeteners range from headaches and migraines to shrunken thymus glands, impairment of liver and kidney function and mood disorders.
Refined sugars aren’t healthy either. Side effects of refined sugars include diabetes, tooth decay, obesity, heart disease, certain types of cancer and even poor cognitive functioning. (2) (3) (4)
Over the last few years, corn growers and affiliated associations have pushed high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a natural sweetener. This is simply not true. The vast majority of HFCS is produced from genetically modified corn. Fructose is a simple sugar that is rapidly metabolized by the liver, causing a “sugar high.” Researchers believe this quick-acting sugar leads to increased storage of fat in the liver, resulting in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, digestive upset and atherosclerosis. (5)
So what is a good natural sweetener? Fortunately, there are many natural sweeteners that are healthy and tasty alternatives to refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. According to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, substituting healthy sweeteners — including blackstrap molasses, maple syrup and honey — can increase your antioxidant intake. This study shows that replacing 130 grams a day of refined sugars (the average intake) with healthy sugar substitutes can increase the amount of antioxidants you consume each day, in amounts similar to that of consuming berries and nuts. (6)
Top 11 Natural Sweeteners and How to Use Them
- Raw honey (1 tablespoon = 64 calories)
- Stevia (0 calories)
- Dates (1 Medjool Date = 66 calories)
- Coconut sugar (1 tablespoon = 45 calories)
- Maple syrup (1 tablespoon = 52 calories)
- Blackstrap molasses (1 tablespoon = 47 calories)
- Balsamic glaze (1 tablespoon = 20–40 calories, depending on thickness)
- Banana puree (1 cup = 200 calories)
- Brown rice syrup (1 tablespoon = 55 calories)
- Real fruit jam (varies depending on fruit)
- Monk fruit (0 calories)
1. Raw Honey
Raw honey is a true superfood and one of the best natural sweeteners. It’s packed with enzymes, antioxidants, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B6, riboflavin and niacin. Together, these essential nutrients help to neutralize free radicals while promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in the digestive tract.
One tablespoon of raw honey has 64 calories and has less impact on glycemic load than a single banana. It’s important to note that these are the benefits of raw honey. Once pasteurized, honey loses many of the health benefits raw honey brings to the table.
Look for local raw honey at farmer markets and directly from local beekeepers. The darker the honey, the richer the flavor and the greater the health benefits.
How to use raw honey:
First, don’t cook with raw honey. Drizzle it on breakfast cereals, over your sprouted grain toast, on yogurt and for salad dressings. Raw honey is also a great substitute for molasses in case you’re not a fan or don’t have it on hand.
Many people only think of using honey in their tea, but honey is one of the best natural sweeteners for coffee too. One thing to note: If you enjoy honey in your tea or coffee, wait until the drink is just tepid enough to sip comfortably, and then add honey to taste. This way you help the raw honey to maintain those valuable nutrients.
Stevia is native to South America and has been used for hundreds of years in that region to support healthy blood sugar levels and prompt weight loss.
Today, stevioside, the element in the leaves that makes it more than 200 times as sweet as sugar, is available in liquid drops, packets, dissolvable tablets and baking blends. It has zero calories, zero carbohydrates and none of the nasty side effects of artificial sweeteners, making it an ideal natural sweetener.
Stevia is related to the sunflower, and some people experience a slight metallic aftertaste. If that has been your experience with stevia in the past, try a brand that is higher in the steviosides. Many find it to be sweeter, without a residual aftertaste.
If you’re looking for natural sweeteners for diabetics, the American Diabetes Association includes stevia on its list of recommended sugar substitutes. (7) If you’re looking for natural sweeteners keto-approved, stevia and erythritol are typically the top sugar substitute recommendations for people following a ketogenic diet.
How to use stevia:
Unlike raw honey, stevia is heat stable, so feel free to use it in any way you desire. Remember, it’s 200 times sweeter than sugar, so don’t use it in the same ratio. Out of all of the natural sweeteners, stevia is definitely one of the sweetest. A tiny bit goes a long way.
For baking, this can present a problem, as refined sugar gives bulk to recipes. However, this can be easily rectified. To make up for the lost bulk when using stevia, use ⅓ to ½ cup of one of the following bulking agents: fresh fruit puree, yogurt, roasted winter squash, two whipped egg whites or one to two tablespoons of coconut flour.
Be mindful to add coconut flour slowly, as it absorbs a ton of moisture. If you are using a recipe you’ve used in the past, make adjustments to get to the consistency you expect.
Dates are loaded with potassium, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium and vitamin B6. From the date palm tree, they are easily digested and help to metabolize proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Evidence shows that dates may help to reduce LDL cholesterol in the blood and may reduce the risk of stroke.
How to use dates:
The first step is to make a paste. Date paste can be used one-to-one in most recipes, unlike stevia, and it does add bulk for baking. Soak Medjool dates in hot water until soft. If the water reaches room temperature and the dates aren’t soft enough, soak in hot water again.
Reserve the soaking liquid, as it’s integral to making a good paste! Add the soaked dates to your food processor, along with one tablespoon of the soaking liquid. Blend until smooth. Add more water as needed to create a thick, rich paste.
You are looking for the consistency of peanut butter. Use in your favorite cookie or cake recipe to cut out refined sugar and boost the nutrients. You can also use date paste to sweeten your favorite muffins and pies.
For fruit pies, mix 1–1½ cups of puree with four cups of fruit, and bake as normal. Depending on the water content of the fruit, you may need to add a thickener, like tapioca.
4. Coconut Sugar
Most people have heard about the benefits of coconut water, coconut milk, coconut flour and, of course, fresh coconut. Now, more and more people are using coconut sugar as their natural sweetener of choice because of its low glycemic load and rich mineral content.
Packed with polyphenols, iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, antioxidants, phosphorous and other phytonutrients, coconut sugar is versatile and now readily available. Coconut sugar is extracted sap from the blooms of the coconut and then heated. Next, through evaporation, we get coconut sugar.
Date sugar (made from dried dates) and coconut sugar are often used interchangeably in recipes because they provide similar flavor.
How to use coconut sugar:
Use coconut sugar in your favorite recipes, for it measures just like traditional sugar. It’s a bit more coarse than refined sugar, but that’s okay. Add the amount of sugar called for in a recipe to your food processor and give it a whirl until you get the desired texture.
Or you can dissolve the coconut sugar in the liquids called for in the recipe. However, dissolving the sugar is not recommended when making a recipe that calls for “creaming” ingredients together — like for cakes or cookies.
You can even make a confectioner’s sugar substitute with coconut sugar quite quickly. For every cup of coconut sugar, add one tablespoon of arrowroot powder and blend until smooth in a clean coffee grinder or high-powered food processor. While this process will never result in a blend as white or as silky as commercially produced powdered sugar, it’s a much more healthful solution.
5. Maple Syrup
Native to North America, maple syrup comes in both Grades A and B. While time consuming, maple syrup processing requires only four steps — drilling the hole in the tree, hanging a bucket to catch the sap, boiling to evaporate out the water and then filtering of any sediment.
Maple syrup is an outstanding source of manganese and contains calcium, potassium and zinc. (8) Rich with antioxidants, this all-natural sweetener helps to neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative damage. Select darker, Grade B maple syrups, as they contain more beneficial antioxidants than the lighter syrups. (9)
How to use maple syrup:
Maple syrup is heat stable, so you can use it in virtually any application. Add it to marinades, glazes or sauces and use for baking. Use it to sweeten homemade granola and your morning coffee or tea.
For a glaze for cookies or cakes, heat until just barely simmering and add the coconut-powdered sugar from above. Stir until smooth, allow to cool to room temperature and then drizzle away!
6. Blackstrap Molasses
Organic blackstrap molasses is highly nutritious, rich in copper, calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, selenium and vitamin B6. Sugarcane and beet molasses have the highest phenolic content and antioxidant activity when compared with refined sugar, beet sugar, rape honey, corn syrup and dates. (10)
There are several types of molasses, depending on which level of processing it has gone through. All molasses is obtained from raw cane sugar, made by boiling it until it’s a rich, sweet syrup. Blackstrap molasses comes from the third boiling, concentrating its nutrients and providing for its deep rich flavor.
How to use blackstrap molasses:
Molasses has a unique, rich flavor. It may not be appealing for some to use for topping toast, porridges or other concentrated applications. However, it’s a perfect sweetener for marinades and to use in baking.
You can even make a brown sugar alternative by adding two tablespoons of molasses for each ½ cup coconut sugar a recipe calls for. Put the coconut sugar and the molasses in a food processor, and pulse until the consistency of commercial brown sugar is reached.
7. Balsamic Glaze
Balsamic vinegar is rich in antioxidants that destroy free radicals, rich in the enzyme pepsin that helps to promote healthy digestion and tastes great. That’s why it’s included in my Healing Foods Diet.
How to use balsamic glaze:
Balsamic glazes are available in natural health food and gourmet stores, but you can also quickly make your own glaze at home. Simply simmer two cups of balsamic vinegar over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until it’s reduced to ½ cup.
This process can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. It will thicken further upon cooling. Drizzle the glaze over grilled wild-caught salmon, over raw cheese or even fresh berries to bring a natural sweetness and a bit of a tang.
8. Banana Puree
Bananas are rich in fiber and potassium and a good source of vitamins B6 and C. They are also naturally sweet with a subtle flavor, making them a perfect natural sweetener.
How to use banana puree:
First, overripe bananas are the best to use when replacing refined sugar in recipes. They are sweeter and puree well. For every cup of sugar called for in a recipe, use one cup of banana puree. To make the puree, add bananas to a food processor with a tablespoon of water and blend. Add more water if necessary to reach the consistency of thick applesauce.
As bananas brown when exposed to air, use as quickly as possible in recipes. If you are using banana puree in raw preparations, add one teaspoon of fresh lemon juice to the food processor to help retard the oxidation process.
9. Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup starts with brown rice that is fermented with enzymes to break down the starch. The liquid is then heated until the syrup consistency is achieved. The result? A thick, amber-colored, sweet syrup perfect for recipes calling for corn syrup and other unhealthy sweeteners.
The fermented process helps to break down the sugars into ones that are easily digestible. The fermenting process is key; some brown rice syrups are fermented with barley enzymes, meaning it contains gluten. Purchase brown rice syrups that are labeled gluten-free.
How to use brown rice syrup:
As mentioned above, brown rice syrup is the perfect replacement in recipes that call for corn syrup. Use a one-to-one ratio. To replace regularly processed white sugar, use one cup for each cup of sugar called for and decrease liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup.
Use brown rice syrup to make healthy granola bars and granola, nut clusters and to sweeten nut and fruit pies.
10. Real Fruit Jam
The key here is real fruit jam. Berries, stone fruit, apples, pears and grapes are great replacements for sugar in recipes. You can use commercially available fruit jam; just be sure there is no added sugar or pectin. It’s better to make your own sugar-free jam with organic fresh or frozen fruit. It’s easy and economical.
How to use real fruit jam:
Replace sugar in recipes at a one-to-one ratio, decreasing the liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup. Or, for recipes that don’t have added liquids, you can add a tablespoon of coconut flour to thicken the recipe as desired.
To make your own fresh jam, combine four cups of your favorite fruit or berry in a saucepan with ½ cup water. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. Simmer until fruit has broken down and has started to thicken. Puree in a food processor and use immediately.
For a tasty apple pie, simmer ½ cup of peeled diced apples with one cup of green grapes until soft. Puree in the food processor until smooth. Toss with sliced apples and a touch of cinnamon and bake as directed. The grapes will add a subtle sweetness while the natural pectin in the apples will help to thicken the pie.
11. Monk Fruit
Have you ever tried monk fruit sweetener? Monk fruit contains compounds that, when extracted, provide 300–400 times the sweetness of cane sugar, but monk fruit sugar contains no calories and has no effect on blood sugar.
How to use monk fruit:
Monk fruit can be used in all kinds of recipes from cheesecakes and cookies to smoothies and healthy mocktails.
Benefits of Natural Sweeteners
Benefits of natural sweeteners vary on an individual basis, but one thing they all have in common: they come from nature.
What’s a standard natural sweeteners definition? “Natural sweeteners, in comparison to nonnutritive sweeteners, contain calories and nutrients, are metabolized, and change as they pass through the body.” (11) In other words, natural sweeteners — like honey, maple syrup and molasses — actually contain beneficial components and the human body knows how to process them. Other than stevia and monk fruit, all of these other natural sweeteners add sweetness while also providing additional healthy attributes, including key vitamins and minerals.
Plus, some of these natural sweeteners (like banana puree and date paste) provide incredible fruit health benefits according to USDA, like encouraging a healthy blood pressure while reducing cholesterol levels and heart disease risk. Plus, fruit can provide nutrients that boost the health of pregnant women and their offspring. (12)
Stats on Sugar Consumption In the U.S.
Here are some recent statistics involving sugar in the American diet that are quite concerning:
The United States ranks as having the highest average daily sugar consumption per person, followed by Germany and the Netherlands. (13)
In 1822, the average American ate the amount of sugar found in one of today’s 12-ounce sodas every five days. As of 2012, we were eating that much every seven hours. (14)
Using brain-scanning technology, scientists at the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse were among the first to show that sugar causes changes in peoples’ brains similar to those in people addicted to drugs such as cocaine and alcohol. These changes often result in heightened cravings for more sugar. (1)
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting total intake of discretionary calories, including both added sugars and fats, to five to 15 percent per day. Yet children and adolescents in America obtain about 16 percent of their total caloric intake from added sugars alone. (1)
A large amount of clinical studies have found consistent data that body weight changes correlate directly with increasing or decreasing intake of sugars. Just by decreasing five percent of sugar intake, individuals were witnessed to lose an average of 1.8 pounds of their body weights. And by increasing sugar intake by five percent, individuals were seen to gain an average of 1.7 pounds. (15)
In 2018, the projected cost for treating obesity-related illnesses will be 21 percent of the total healthcare expenditure of $344 billion. (16)
Natural Sweeteners vs. Sugar
According to the Cleveland Clinic, “table sugar is inflammatory, high in calories and offers no nutritional benefit.” (17) What is the healthiest sugar substitute to use? Some experts like fruit the best because there are no empty calories involved and the sugars are naturally occurring, but it really can be a matter of personal opinion and/or individual health needs.
Processed foods (think granola bars) and sugary drinks (soda) contain loads of refined sugar (aka table sugar). That’s one of the reasons why reading food and beverage labels is so important. Natural sweeteners can actually provide nutrients and therefore boost health. Sugar in the raw is less processed than refined sugar, but there are still better healthy sugar substitutes like the ones mentioned above.
Is stevia better than sugar? Many dietitians would say “yes,” especially when it’s a stevia that is 100 percent pure and organic. (17) That’s the thing about natural sweeteners — you also need to read labels carefully and know what you’re getting. Some stevia products contain stevia as well as erythritol, while some maple syrups aren’t pure and also contain high fructose corn syrup.
Natural Sweeteners vs. Artificial Sweeteners
What is the healthiest artificial sweetener? One that isn’t artificial! I know — that doesn’t really answer the question. But honestly, I just don’t know why anyone would choose an artificial sweetener when there are so many better natural options. There’s even zero calorie and zero sugar natural sweeteners like stevia!
Please don’t be fooled into thinking that a zero calorie artificial sweetener with zero grams of sugar is healthy. Both human and animal studies are continuing to reveal that frequent consumption of diet soda or artificial sweeteners is associated with greater body mass index (BMI), obesity and metabolic syndrome. (18)
Read more about the five worst artificial sweeteners and their many health dangers.
How to Get More Natural Sweeteners in Your Diet
Even when using natural sweeteners, like raw honey, you still want to be mindful of your overall sugar consumption. How much natural sugar should you have a day? According to The American Heart Association (AHA), you should limit the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than half of your daily discretionary calorie allowance. For most American women, this is no more than 100 calories per day and no more than 150 calories per day for men (or about six teaspoons per day for women and nine teaspoons per day for men). The AHA defines “added sugars” as “any sugars or caloric sweeteners … added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation.” So added sugars include refined sugar as well as natural sweeteners like honey. (19)
Added sugars are different from natural sugars. What are natural sugars? Fruit and dairy products contain natural sugars. In fruit, these natural sugars are called fructose while in dairy, the sugars are known as lactose. (20)
Getting more natural sweeteners in your daily diet isn’t hard if you completely stop using refined table sugar and use healthier substitutes instead. Plus, you also can look for food products that are sweet thanks to ingredients like stevia rather than refined sugar.
Many people don’t realize how much refined sugars are in the foods they are getting from the store or eating at restaurants. In general, you’re much better off making food at home and being in control of how things get sweetened. Because even if a product is using a natural sweetener, you still don’t want to consume too many added sugars in your diet in general, no matter what the sources.
I think now is the perfect time to talk about how you can swap out refined sugar for healthier natural sweeteners in all kinds of delicious recipes.
Recipe Swaps with Natural Sweeteners
Ready for some awesome recipes that swap out refined sugar for some healthier sweetness? Try these Gluten-Free Gingerbread Cookies that are naturally sweetened with dates and blackstrap molasses for a healthy alternative to store-bought cookies. Check out this Maple Glazed Rosemary Carrots as a delicious side dish to accompany your favorite grilled grass-fed meats or free-range poultry.
More tasty recipes that use natural sweeteners instead of refined sugar or artificial sweeteners:
Key Lime Pie Recipe
Coconut Milk Coffee Creamer Recipe
Roasted Beets Recipe with Balsamic Rosemary Glaze
To find your best sugar substitute, you’ll likely have to test out a few and you might end up liking one for your morning coffee but a different one for your baking needs.
Natural Sweeteners Precautions
It’s important to remember that even if you’re using natural sweeteners, you still need to be mindful of not consuming too much added sugar in your diet. Eating too much added sugar can lead to poor nutrition, tooth decay, weight gain, increased triglycerides and other significant health concerns. Also remember you shouldn’t give children under the age of one year old any honey. (20)
If you are being treated for any ongoing health concern, especially diabetes, check with your doctor before incorporating any new sweeteners into your diet.
Natural Sweeteners Final Thoughts
Each of these natural sweeteners has a best use, and some recipe modification will be necessary. Explore and find what natural sweetener you like best.
What is the best alternative to sugar? That is definitely a matter of taste preference as well as health status, but a good alternative to refined sugar will be a healthy natural sugar substitute rather than one of those dangerous artificial sweeteners.
Are natural sweeteners better than sugar? Unlike refined sugar, natural sweeteners like date paste and fruit jam provide beneficial nutrients and major health benefits.
Living healthy doesn’t mean you have to give up sweets entirely; it just means you need to replace unhealthy refined sugars and artificial sweeteners with these natural sweeteners.